Barstow city officials have taken up backroom discussions of whether the city council should outright, using its own authority, pass an ordinance that would permit entrepreneurs trafficking in marijuana operate in their city, including ones selling the drug, cultivating it or refining it for intoxicative or medical purposes, or, in the alternative, place a measure on the ballot that would allow the city’s voters to determine whether such commercial activities should be allowed in the city.
If the city council or the voters adopt such an ordinance, it will reverse the policy that has been in place in the railroad town with regard to marijuana availability and use for more than a century and the official ban on the substance the city has maintained throughout its 71-year history.
Barstow is not alone among California or San Bernardino County cities now seeking to come to terms with the social revolution, which has been brewing for over half of a century but has only manifested as a codified reality within the last two-and-a-half years, relating to the use of cannabis, and the social and legal acceptance of it.
The plant has long had its advocates and users who have extolled its relative virtues as an intoxicant in contrast to alcohol.
In the latter years of the 1800s and the early years of the 20th Century, a significant segment of the U.S. population was growing intolerant toward the use of anything inducing inebriation. The temperance movement, which targeted in the main alcohol, was gathering momentum. In 1907, the poison act essentially rendered marijuana an illegal substance and from that point forward for well over sixty years the laws restricting it intensified. A century ago, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified by the 36th State, triggering a prohibition on alcohol that lasted in the entirety of the United States from 1920 to 1933. Corresponding with prohibition was an era of intense gangsterism, which flourished in large measure because a subset of the criminal element catered to that portion of the public that wanted to indulge in the use of alcohol despite the official sanction against it. When the ban on alcohol was lifted, the restrictions on cannabis remained in place and for more than 80 years a subculture that was almost as pervasive and even more sophisticated in many respects than the one that facilitated the continued use of alcohol during the 13 years of prohibition developed within American culture to sustain the availability of marijuana. At an official level those participating in that network were considered elements of a criminal subculture, encompassing anyone who used the drug and possessed it in relatively minute quantities for personal use, as well as those who sold it and those who transported it, grew it or imported it into the country from outside the country. Those members of the subculture who were caught by law enforcement at whatever level of their involvement were subject, almost uniformly throughout the United States, to increasingly harsh, sometimes brutal and even draconian efforts to suppress marijuana at a multitude of governmental levels, both state and federal. By the 1970s, fully one-third of the adult population was using cannabis, even as police, prosecutors and the courts were engaging in efforts, at a cost of billions of dollars, to arrest, prosecute and imprison marijuana users and those who made it available.
In 1996, California’s voters provided the first indication of the sea change in attitude within the general population toward marijuana when the Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act, passed statewide. It called for allowing marijuana to be dispensed to anyone who obtained a prescription for the drug from a licensed physician. While doctors for patients suffering from maladies and conditions in which the drug was of some remedy indeed wrote out prescriptions for what were ostensibly legitimate purposes, medical marijuana prescriptions very soon became a means by which that portion of the population seeking to be able to use cannabis recreationally without being subjected to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment indulged in its use. Simultaneously, the political establishment and reactionary elements utilized that portion of the act that allowed local governmental entities to regulate or outright ban dispensaries selling the product from locating within their jurisdictions keep most of the cities and counties marijuana-free zones. Most cities and counties in the state had city councils or county governing boards composed of elected officials who yet considered marijuana to be anathema to a well-ordered society and community. Those officials, in league with zealous opponents of cannabis, used their dominant political authority to employ local law enforcement agencies to prevent marijuana purveyors from establishing a toehold in their communities. Routinely, medical marijuana distributors would set up dispensaries or clinics, in some cases straightforwardly or in others surreptitiously or by obtaining a business license by representing the operation as health food store or spa, reap a considerable but short-lived profit that would in most cases offset the considerable start-up costs, and then be shut down by code enforcement or zone enforcement or law enforcement action. In due course, these entrepreneurs would move on to reinvent their operation at a different location in the same jurisdiction or perhaps another jurisdiction, repeating the process. In some cases, emboldened clinic operators would reinvest their profits in legal action challenging the efforts by local authorities to shut them down, occasionally succeeding by obtaining a usually temporary injunction to prevent enforcement action or their closure.
As marijuana remained under federal standards a Schedule 1 narcotic indistinguishable from heroin and cocaine, those yet determined to stem the rising marijuana tide in California endeavored to utilize authority from up the governmental evolutionary chain to reestablish that the revolutionary forces all about them were in fact nothing more than moral reprobates and criminals. Either at the request of local authorities or in some cases on their own initiative, federal authorities, i.e., the U.S. Attorney’s office working in conjunction with the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Agency, pursued federal cases against some dispensary owners, operators or their landlords, particularly in those cases where the operators were deemed to be particularly defiant, asserted challenges to federal law, or were particularly persistent in their operations.
Simultaneously, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office and in some cases the offices of various city attorneys sought to keep up. Initially what had been fewer than a dozen individuals willing to brave the legitimate marijuana sales frontier – running a medical marijuana dispensary in local venues where municipal ordinances did not allow for them – could be corralled into court and in some cases jailed and in all cases fined substantially in an effort to convince them to desist. By 2009 the number of illicit medical marijuana sales venues countywide had jumped to a score or more. By 2012 that number had zoomed to several hundred. At that point, the sheer volume of those willing to run the marijuana distribution restriction gauntlet had come to overwhelm local civil authorities. In July 2014, San Bernardino City Attorney Gary Saenz, taking stock of the number of pot shops sprouting up in the county’s largest city, offered his view that the cost and difficulty of shutting down dispensaries made enforcement of the city’s ban on the enterprises “futile.” Two years previously, Needles, lying at the extreme east end of the county on the shore of the Colorado River, the gateway to Golden State, was the first of the county’s 24 cities to bow to the new social reality, clearing the way for five licensed marijuana dispensaries to operate in what, at 4,900 residents, is the county’s least populous city.
Three years later, the City of Adelanto, led by then-Mayor Rich Kerr, became the second city to seek to cash in on the marijuana bonanza, enacting an ordinance by which the city was at liberty to permit large-scale indoor nurseries cultivating medical marijuana to operate within the city’s industrial park.
Adelanto and Needles, however, were the dual exceptions in San Bernardino County, with the other 22 cities and the county maintaining the ban.
When 2016 dawned, the minority of social conservatives in San Bernardino County whose philosophy held that the only form of moral and legal intoxication was to be found in a bottle continued with their generation-long success in ensuring that those who felt differently would be effectively labeled as criminals. Before the year concluded, however, those marijuana prohibitionists would be overtaken by events. A statewide movement succeeded in achieving the passage, in the November general election, of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized, for those of the age of majority in the Golden State, the possession and use of marijuana for its intoxicative effect, and legalized the cultivation and sale of the drug for the same purpose.
In one fell swoop the anti-marijuana crowd had been both discredited and ineffectualized as a driving social and legal force, at least in California.
Now ensuing that development is what many observers consider to be the hypocritical adaptation of the new ethos that is breathtaking in scope. Officials who for years or decades and until quite recently insisted that pot smoking was not only illegal but a severe moral failing and that those who profited by the sale of the substance were parasites feeding upon society and trafficking in human misery such that they were deserving of decade-long prison sentences are now in a headlong rush to get in on the ground floor of the new economy with marijuana at its core so their city’s can cash in, like the drug dealers of just a few years ago, on the public’s appetite for inebriation.
In addition to Adelanto and Needles, in the cities of San Bernardino, Montclair, Rialto, Victorville and Big Bear Lake as well as in the unincorporated county district of Bloomingon there are now storefronts selling marijuana doing a booming business, with a percentage of the proceeds from those sales going to the government. Hesperia hosts businesses that deliver marijuana, and that city is also getting a piece of the action.
Word now comes that Barstow officials are likewise looking to fatten their city’s coffers by consenting to host businesses which will retail marijuana for both medical and intoxicative purposes. That will be a shrewd move, those officials believe, as some 190,000 travelers headed to Las Vegas on average pass through Barstow on a weekly basis. It is calculated that the pot shops that set up operations in the 41.33 square mile, 24,000-population city could achieve gross sales nearing $20 million annually. With its voters having passed Measure Q, a one cent per dollar sales tax override, last November, Barstow now has the highest sales tax in San Bernardino County at 8.75 percent. Of that 8.75 cents per dollar, Barstow is entitled to two cents. Thus, if Barstow hits the $20 million marijuana retail sales mark annually, the city would reap $400,000 in sales tax. Yet that would not be the full extent of what the city might realize. At present, the discussions being carried out envision the city collecting a 5 percent to 15 percent operational tax to be levied on cannabis-related businesses within its jurisdiction. That would bring in an additional $1 million to $3 million. One possible factor that might reduce the city’s income from allowing the cannabis ventures to flourish would be that the sales tax would not be applicable to marijuana sold for medical as opposed to recreational purposes, as prescriptions are sales tax-exempt.
A criticism that has been levied at the city is that it has entrusted the formulation of city’s marijuana policy to the city’s Rules and Policies Committee, which is headed by Councilman Richard Harpole. Harpole spent just under 24 years with the Barstow Police Department, rising to the rank of lieutenant before retiring in 2008, at which point he was eligible for a pension, which currently stands at $77,700 per year. A primary element of his assignment during his last several years with the police department was overseeing drug interdiction efforts. Thus, Harpole, who spent more than two decades in arresting and consigning those involved in the trafficking of marijuana to prosecution and conviction often on charges of crimes of moral turpitude related to the sale of marijuana and the profiting therefrom, is now designing a policy by which the city will create opportunities for individuals to engage in the sale of marijuana and consequently make way for the institution with which he, Harpole, is affiliated, the City of Barstow, to profit therefrom.
Efforts by the Sentinel to obtain from Harpole his response to that criticism, as well as his perspective on the changing social and legal dynamics of marijuana use, marijuana availability and its legitimized commercialism were unsuccessful. Those efforts included a letter sent to Harpole by email and phone calls to his council office at Barstow City Hall.
In response to an inquiry made to the city on the subject, Anthony Riley, Barstow’s official spokesman told the Sentinel, “The city council is scheduled to review and discuss two cannabis ordinances at the June 3, 2019 meeting. At this time, no decisions have been made on the outcome of cannabis in the City of Barstow, and it may be premature to request the position of council members on an issue they have yet to discuss in open session.”